We have surrendered far too much valuable space in our cities to automobiles. And I’m not just referring to our roadways: In Houston, about two-thirds of the city’s surface area is dedicated to roads and parking; in many American cities, more land per capita is devoted to cars than housing.
Fortunately, in recent years, some of these spaces have become reanimated with people. From a tree lined downtown mall in Charlottesville, Virginia, to the tables and chairs popping up along Broadway in New York City, the public is reclaiming with their feet many of these once squandered urban assets.
Spontaneous Eruptions of Joy
Why are streets-for-people important? Because only on them can this happen: On a recent afternoon in New Orleans, at the corner of Iberville and Bourbon Streets, a group of local musicians staged a funky, bloodless coup. First, they staked claim to the intersection, and then almost immediately began playing. Traffic stalled. Tourists gathered around to encourage and collaborate. A young musician with a trombone case on his shoulder quickly parked his bike and took up his horn. A wiry woman began to juke it out; her gyrating presence seemed to give everyone else permission to join in.
The Hell With Cars
There’s no good reason to drive a car in the French Quarter, but people do it anyway and when confronted with this impromptu explosion of music and dance, they had no other choice. They crawled through the pulsing intersection, rubbernecking, understandably transfixed. A short man lowered his head, closed his eyes and slid into a trancelike second line dance. The dancing woman—the street conjurer, as I like to think of her—suddenly stopped, grabbed her adolescent daughter by the hand, and disappeared into the crowd, as if her work was done. And in a way it was: the tourists were still dancing and singing, the band wailed, their music bouncing off the surrounding buildings.
Streets as Stage Set
In New Orleans, these eruptions of song, dance and spectacle are a form of public theater. They’re one of the great attractions of city life. So given the benefits to community health, quality of life, and even the elusive idea of civic joy, it’s a wonder why these intersections are far too often the exception rather than the rule in our cities.